A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


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Lessons from a Publication Virgin


I’m coming to the end of my first month of publication boot camp. Yesterday, I submitted 4 out of the 5 required submissions. Of course, I procrastinated until almost the last possible date. I could blame it on the Charlotte trip last weekend, but really it’s the intimidation factor. How can my poems compete with the likes of Marilyn Nelson, Billy Collins, and Kim Addonizio? Or even my previous VCFA advisers, Rick Jackson and Ralph Angel? But I faced my fears and sent my poems out in the world. I thought I’d share what I learned in case there are others out there like me, who want publish but don’t know where to start.

How to prepare a submission: To start, I printed out all of the poems I thought were ready and grouped them according to which poems complemented each other in terms of theme or style. I wanted poems that varied a bit in terms of length and form to demonstrate my poetic versatility (or so I hoped). During this process, I found myself tweaking line breaks, rearranging stanzas, and even, holding back some of those “ready-to-send” poems for next month. Then I needed to prepare the submission itself. Like any other workout regimen, there’s a learning curve in how to prepare poetry submissions. The best advice I read was on Poetic Asides: follow the submissions guideline to a T. This post also had sample cover letters, which I promptly copied and edited for my own purposes. Because I don’t have a long track record for publication, I kept the part about lauding my laurels in the cover letter short. Based on my own experience as a reviewer for Hunger Mountain, the cover letter is not as important as the poems themselves.

Where to publish: OMG! There are so many literary magazines and journals out there, it is impossible to keep up with them all. Luckily, I frequent the periodicals section of UNC Davis Library. Sometimes I just walk through the stacks in alphabetical order, grabbing armloads of recent issues off the shelves. I take about two hours to browse through literary journals to discover poets I’ve never heard of and keep abreast of what’s hot in contemporary American poetry (or at least what is getting published). For those “new-to-me” poets, I usually go up to the 8th floor to find their most recently published book to read other poems and figure out other places they’ve been published. Those lit mags go on my mental list to read the next time I’m browsing through the stacks. Recommendations also come from the places where my poet-friends have been accepted or rejected.

What to send where: Every lit mag says they want your best work, but not all of them take simultaneous submissions. So then you have to decide what to send where. This is where being familiar with the lit mag helps because it gives me a sense of which poems I could see published there. All guidelines state the maximum number of poems per submission. Again, I can draw upon my experience as a reviewer. Hunger Mountain accepts up to 10 poems, but I only need to read 3 poems to get a sense of the poet’s work. So each of my submissions contained 3 poems, with the exception of Cimarron Review, which got 4 poems with titles beginning with the letter T (not sure how that happened). I included the last poem, “Tour Guide at Río Camuy Caverns,” after reading the three most recent issues at the library.

The final step in this lesson is waiting—which I’ve just started learning how to do.


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Low-Residency MFA Programs


Three years ago this week, I heard the term “low-residency MFA program” during a lunch conversation with Cathy Smith Bowers, my workshop leader at the NC Writer’s Network Squire Summer Residency Workshop. My double life poet-friend, Joan McLean, asked Cathy to tell us more about the low-res program where she was faculty, Queens University of Charlotte. I called myself just listening to the conversation, but the more she talked about the structure of the program, the more curious I got. On the drive from Swannanoa to Durham, I decided to follow her advice and look into the low-res programs in the South––including Warren Wilson, the workshop’s host campus––and apply.

So how did I wind up in Vermont? Well, first I have to start with how VCFA got on my list. A simple Google search (“low residency MFA south”)  turned up the programs at Spaulding University in Kentucky and Converse College in South Carolina. The other programs on my list were the  two programs I had just discovered: Warren Wilson and Queens University of Charlotte. But as I reviewed the rankings on Atlantic Monthly and read what current students said about their programs on the MFA blog, Vermont College of Fine Arts started to emerge. The faculty and residency schedule looked good to me, and the length of the program, number of residency days, overall cost, and application requirements were comparable to its southern low-res counterparts. But most importantly, I was excited about the opportunity to study translation as well as the summer residency option in Slovenia. So VCFA got on the list, but I considered it a pie-in-the-sky program. Of course, when I got the welcome-to-the-program phone call from Director, Louise Crowley, going to VCFA became my reality.

And what a wonderful reality it turned out to be! In two years, I completed four semesters of creative work and five residencies–– four in Montpelier and the inaugural winter residency in Puerto Rico in 2011. During that time I wrote and revised over 60 poems, wrote a critical thesis on the poetics of work, assembled a collection of poems as part of my creative thesis, “Oddball”, and presented a lecture that inspired this blog, “A Poet’s Double Life.” The program made me get serious about my poetry career. This dedicated time improved the quality of my poetry because I received individualized feedback on my work from a well-regarded poet. Participating in the residency workshops gave me the skills to read and critique poems. Having a personalized study plan exposed me to different poets, poetic styles, and issues of craft and helped me learn that reading is the number one way to bring issues of craft to life and inspire my own work. But what I cherish the most about the program are the lifelong connections with my fellow students, people who love poetry and writing as much as I do, and who as a group, are an indispensable part of my life as a poet.

If you’re thinking about a low-residency or traditional MFA program, you should definitely do your own research to find the program that is right for you. Poets and Writers magazine has ranked MFA programs in 2011 and 2012 and the Association of Writers & Writing Programs has a graduate program database.

Let me know your thoughts about low-residency MFA programs by leaving a comment.


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poetrySpark!


This year, the Living Poetry organizers are spearheading poetrySpark! This Raleigh event is part of SparkCon, a weekend to showcase the creativity, talent, and ideas of the Triangle. I volunteered the two previous years at the Poetry-on-Demand booth, creating verses for passersby from $1 and a word of their choosing. As a co-organizer of poetrySpark, I’m helping to identify event venues, recruit readers, organize the Featured Readers night, and find a low-cost, high-quality printing vendor (i.e., the inmates at Correction Enterprises).

poetrySpark Open Mic photo by poet-photographer, Anna Weaver

If you live in the Triangle or don’t mind driving to Raleigh’s Warehouse District during September 13th  – 16th, then you should plan on attending one of our events:

  • Erotic Reading @ circusSpark After Dark (Thursday evening, 9/13)
  • Best of the Open Mic Contest @ White Collar Crime (Friday evening, 9/14)
  • Youth Poets Reading (Saturday afternoon, 9/15)
  • Featured Readers Night with former NC Piedmont Laureate, Jaki Shelton Green & Sacrificial Poets (Saturday evening, 9/15)
  • Poetry on Demand (Friday and Saturday, 9/15 & 9/16)

Right now, poetrySpark has a call for poets for the open mic and all reading events until August 15th at midnight. We also need volunteers for Poetry on Demand and at the events to help set up and clean up. Spread the word among the poets you know and love!

Poet in the City: Charlotte, North Carolina

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My poet self never goes on vacation. She sees the beauty of the empty streets of Uptown Charlotte, finds the quotes posted on concrete columns, stands in awe of the foggy skyline, discovers artwork, converses with a queen, and seeks the truth along her path.

“Books are meat and medicine and flame and flight and flower, steel, stitch, cloud and clout, and drumbeats on the air” ~ Gwendolyn Brooks
“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ~Frank Kafka

Uptown Charlotte Skyline in Morning Fog

Uptown Charlotte Skyline from Spirit Square

Art installation in front of Carillon Tower on Trade Street

Mural in front of Spirit Square

“If reading one good book is fun, reading four must be quadruple the pleasure. Two hardcovers and two paperbacks carelessly snuggle about me in the hammock.”

Queen Charlotte in Her Garden

49 Seconds to Cross

Train Crossing Sign on 6th Street

Public Art @ ImaginON

Speak the Truth @ ImaginON

Seek the Truth @ ImaginON

This gallery contains 0 photos


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Summer Reading List


Tearing a page from my fellow Living Poetry co-organizer and blogger extraordinaire, Tara Lynne, here are the books I’m reading this summer:

Books on my summer reading list include “Life on Mars” by Tracy K. Smith and all three poetry collections of Richard Blanco.

  1. The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry (edited Rita Dove) – Yes TPAoTCAP is a mouthful, but it is chock full of poems and poets from a cross-section of society.
  2. Three books by double life poet, Richard BlancoCity of a Hundred Fires (1998) Directions to the Beach of the Dead (2005), and Looking for the Gulf Motel (2012). I’m hoping to land an interview with him for the blog.
  3. Life on Mars (2011) by Tracy K. Smith  – Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Smith is also Cave Canem alumna.
  4. Radial Symmetry (2011) by double life poet, Katherine Larson. Larson won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition in 2010.
  5. Where I Must Go (2009) by Angela Jackson – or as we call her at Cave Canem, “Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty!” This book was the poet-playwright’s first novel and received a great review in the NY Times!
  6. Practical Grammar In Which Words, Phrases, and Sentences Are Classified According to Their Offices; And Their Various Relations to One Another (2012) by Stephen W. Clark. A recent NY Times article mentioned this book in relation to diagramming sentences.
  7. The Undertaker’s Daughter (2012) by Toi Derricotte  – The latest collection of poems by this Cave Canem co-founder.

 

I’m also planning to borrow Audre Lorde’s biomythography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (2011), from someone in my Goodreads circle!  What books do you have on your list? Let me know by leaving a comment.


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Poetry on the Go!


Being a poet with a non-literary career means I don’t always have time to keep up with the latest poetry happenings. I need to know what’s buried in the state budget bill as much as I need to know how to craft a sestina. And even though poetry books are slim enough to fit into my favorite purse, I can’t carry the seven books I’m currently reading at the same time, not to mention the novel and classic craft book on diagramming sentences I just bought (more on my summer reading list in another post).Poetry iPhone Apps

That’s why a smartphone is a double life poet’s best friend. I have three mobile apps that let me access poems anytime:

  1. Poetry Daily: Sends a new contemporary poem each day, provides info on the author and links to the book or literary magazine that published the poem
  2. Poetry App from Poetry Foundation: Allows poetry lovers to browse poems by mood, subject, poet, and in the online audio archive
  3. Poem Flow: Daily poem with a visual component

In addition, I have Dictionary.com and a rhyming app on standby in case I get a flash of inspiration while riding the bus. A recent article on Make Use Of.com lists other must-have-apps for poets.

If you’re a self-proclaimed Luddite like several of my poet-friends, don’t worry! The apps I mentioned can be accessed online or sent to directly to your inbox. In fact, several websites have daily or weekly newsletters with useful information for poets. My favorites are Writer’s Almanac by Garrison Keillor, which features a daily poem and interesting facts in literary history, and About.com Poetry, where you can sign up to receive weekly poetry news or 30 poems for 30 days.

Also, two poetry organizations feature information and insight into the poetry world.

  1. Academy of American Poets fosters appreciation of contemporary poetry and has resources for poets at all stages on their website, Poets.org. You can sign up to have the poem-a-day or one of their 5 newsletters sent to your inbox, including  opportunities for community involvement.
  2. The Poetry Foundation publishes the literary magazine, Poetry, and offers many resources and awards to poets. Scrolling to the bottom of the website will give you several options to keep your inbox or favorite RSS Feed reader filled with poetry, including an audio poem of the day.

I also subscribe to poetry podcasts via iTunes and listen to them on my daily commute on the DRX bus or in the car.

  • Poetry Off-the-Shelf (weekly)
  • Poem Talk (monthly)
  • Living Poetry podcast (occasional)
  • PoemCast (archive)

Let me hear about how you take poetry on the go by leaving a comment!


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Finding Inspiration


When I started writing, words poured out of me as if drawn up from some unknown emotional well deep inside. Poems flooded the pages, but it wasn’t until much later that I considered myself a poet instead a failed novelist. My emotional state directed the content of my writing: feelings of love, loss, and longing became the heart of the poems. Here’s an example:

I miss our magic

I miss the way your kisses taste like kisses are supposed to taste

I miss those four moles that form a constellation on your face

I miss the way you look at me and stare into my soul

I miss the easiness I feel when you take control

I miss you

Even though I’m not supposed to

Fast forward to Vermont College of Fine Art’s low-residency MFA program. For two years, I wrote 3-6 poems every month. I didn’t have the luxury to wait for the Muse to rifle through all the emotional boxes in the attic. I had to take inspiration wherever I could find it, even from the view of the old location of Chapel Hill Public Library:

Here is where I connect

to the essence of everything unfolding.

Here is where I witness

how life stripped down can be just as full.

But I already see buds forming on the leaning maple.

Soon an abundance of green will block the view outside.

(excerpt from Pritchard Park)

Now everything I see, touch, taste, hear, or smell can inspire a poem. The poems I wrote at Cave Canem ran the gamut of topics: my brother, my father’s death, unrequited office romance, professional development, berry picking, and the transit of Venus. Lately, I’ve inspired by photographs and movies like this one:

You were loose once

and then a mysterious

finger twirled you

around itself. You begged

for the ride to stop

and when it did, the middle

and thumb used you to strum

their pain. And now the ring

finger pulls you ever so

gently to your edge.

Fearing you will snap

at any moment, you beg

for the all-powerful hand

to release you and scream

when you reach your limit.

But then the pinky

hooks and stretches you

just a little more,

just to prove you wrong.

Images are a good starting point for expressing an idea connected to something I have observed or experienced. It is my job to find the words to let you, the reader, see this snippet of the world through my eyes.

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